Are You Eligible for a Criminal Appeal?

Experienced criminal appeals attorneys know that the grounds upon which a conviction may be overturned, or a sentence changed, vary from case to case. There are four main, basic grounds for appealing a criminal case after sentencing which include:

  1. Misconduct by law enforcement, such as:
  2. The conviction is not supported by the evidence
  3. Ineffective assistance of counsel
  4. A lower court made a serious error of law, such as:
    • Errors made by trial judge while instructing the jury
    • Mistakes or incorrect rulings by the trial judge
    • Sentencing errors including sentences in excess of legal maximums

Certain mistakes by the court can also be deemed as “harmless error”, which is a ruling by a judge that is incorrect but does not meet the burden for a losing party to have their original verdict reversed, or to warrant a new trial through an appeal.  

What Happens After The Verdict

Your Options After A Criminal Conviction

Much of what the general public knows about courts and criminal law in Pennsylvania comes from what they see and hear in the news media, in police and courtroom dramas on television, and from their friends or co-workers who have faced criminal charges in state or federal court. Rarely do people have an understanding of the process that occurs after a jury reaches a verdict finding the accused guilty of the criminal charges.

Most TV shows involving a criminal case frequently end with the accused being convicted of the charges and being led off to jail or prison by an officer, or the person is declared to be “not guilty” and walks from the courtroom with his or her family and friends. Rarely, if ever, will the scene shift to another courtroom populated by a panel of judges hearing the appeal of a criminal conviction.

Criminal cases in real life do not always end with a conviction as they do on TV. Many cases continue after sentencing into the post-conviction stage. This is when the attorney for the defendant can ask a judge to review either the sentence or the conviction itself, or the case may continue on to a higher court in a process known as an appeal.

What Happens After The Conviction?

After a conviction, the next stage in the process is usually the sentencing hearing at which the judge imposes the punishment that the law authorizes for someone convicted of committing a particular crime. An appeal cannot be filed until a sentence is imposed on a defendant. Once a sentence has been imposed, the defendant has several options for challenging the conviction, the sentence, or both. Some of the more common procedures for doing this include:

  • Filing a notice of appeal with an appellate court;
  • Filing a motion, which is a written request, asking the trial court to set aside the conviction;
  • Filing a motion to reduce or modify the sentence;
  • Filing a motion for a new trial;

Keep in mind that an appeal is not a new trial; it is a review of the previous trial. New evidence will not be considered in an appeal, but the appeals court will review the evidence presented during the first trial.

The Criminal Appeal Filing Process

A notice of appeal to the PA Superior Court must be filed within 30 days of sentencing. Not every case is the same, and it may not be appropriate to immediately file a notice of appeal after sentencing.

In certain cases, a post-sentence motion should be filed first, which should be filed within ten days of being sentenced. A post-sentence motion will present the claim to the trial court and informs them if the defendant’s party will be filing a motion for a new trial or a modification of a sentence.

Following the post-sentence motion filing, the trial court has up to 120 days to make a decision on the motion. If the court has not made a decision within 120 days, the motion is automatically denied. If denied, a notice of appeal must then be filed within 30 days.

The notice of appeal is filed with the trial court at which a defendant was convicted. After the Superior Court of Pennsylvania is notified of the appeal, it will send a docketing statement to the attorney or party who filed the notice of appeal. The document has to be completed and returned to the Superior Court. During this same timeframe, the trial court will demand a “Statement of Errors Complained of on Appeal”, as required by law, from the defendant’s attorney within 21 days. This document will inform the trial court of the issues that will be addressed during the appeal.

The trial judge will then produce an opinion which explains why the issues presented in the Statement of Errors should not warrant relief, which will then be sent to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. After the opinion is filed by the trial judge, the Superior Court will direct the Appellant to write and file a brief, which is the party’s written arguments for why they believe they are eligible for relief.  The trial court will be provided the opportunity to file their own brief that will reply to the defendant party’s brief within 30 days. The defendant then has the option to file a reply brief within fourteen days.

After the briefs are filed, the parties have the option to choose to participate in oral argument before a panel of 3 Superior Court judges for several minutes. During the oral argument, the lawyers will present their reasons why the appeal should be granted or denied.

Following the brief filing or the oral arguments, the Superior Court will issue a ruling. If the appeal is denied, a possible route may be to file a Petition for Allowance of Appeal, which is filed in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Typically, the Supreme Court of PA does not tend to accept appeals, unless the Superior Court made a mistake or if a novel issue of law is demonstrated by the appeal.

How Long Does The Criminal Appeals Process Take?

Again, there is no definite answer to this question and it varies from case to case. It can take a long time and may take as long as a year or more. One of the biggest factors of how long the process takes depends on how quickly the lawyers and trial judge move the case forward (I.E., how long it takes them to file each motion, etc.). The lawyers may request extensions on filings. In a perfect world, if both the appellate and the appellee parties file everything on time with no extensions, opt out of the oral arguments in front of the panel of judges, and the Superior Court rules in a timely fashion, the appeal process may take less than a year. There is no way of knowing exactly how long it will take because it all depends on the individuals involved in the process.